'Dancing With The Cars' here to stay
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- David Pearson was outside the Wood Brothers hauler he helped make famous, only minutes before the start of Trevor Bayne's incredible Daytona 500 run in the No. 21 bearing the red and white paint scheme the "Silver Fox" won there with in 1976, when the subject of two-car drafts came up.
"I don't like it," NASCAR's second-winningest driver said Feb. 20. "It's not really drafting. It's just pushing each other. And it's dangerous. I don't care what anybody says, it's got to be dangerous. If the front car wiggles and he's still against them, he's going to spin him out."
We saw a lot of that at Daytona. We'll see more this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.
A lot more.
Now that you've had a few months to think about it, did you like NASCAR's "Dancing With The Cars?"
"I hope it is the same, man, and then we could have the same result," the 20-year-old Bayne said with a laugh.[+] EnlargeJason Smith/Getty Images for NASCARCarl Edwards, left, and Brad Keselowski used the two-car draft to rocket to the front in the spring 2009 race at Talladega.
Naturally. He won.
Not that it matters what anybody thinks. Whether you're in Pearson's corner and don't like tandem racing, love it like Bayne or are totally indifferent, there's nothing you or NASCAR can do about it.
Until the newly surfaced tracks at Daytona and Talladega are too rough to allow this phenomenon, or the car design is changed to disrupt the aerodynamic advantages, two-car drafts are here to stay.
"It will be identical to Daytona, actually," Tony Stewart said. "Maybe even more guys being wider. It's a wider track, so instead of just three-wide you might be able to get guys four-wide even there pretty comfortable."
So if you like the 30-car pack racing that made Talladega so unique, you're probably out of luck -- whether you're a driver or a fan.
And yes, there are drivers who aren't fond of this.
"I don't particularly like that style of racing," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., hoping to end a 100-race losing streak on a track where he's won five times. "I'd rather have control of just what I've got to do. Having to have responsibility for someone else is a little bit more than I care to deal with, but that is the way the racing is."
Tandem drafting is the byproduct of the new car that allows the front bumper of one to perfectly match with the rear bumper of another and the smooth sticky surfaces of Talladega and Daytona, where drivers stay on the gas all the way around.
It was discovered accidentally at Talladega in the spring of 2009 as drivers began to experiment with short breakaway runs. It was most memorable at the end as Brad Keselowski stuck his Chevrolet to the back of Carl Edwards' Ford and the two pushed passed the top six cars, putting a few hundred yards on the field as they approached the finish line.
It ended with Edwards' car flying into the catch-fence before landing on the hood of Ryan Newman's car. But the strategy from that point was clear -- two cars locked together are faster than one.
A year later, Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray pulled away with Harvick passing for the win at the line. Harvick and Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer did the same thing last fall with Bowyer inches out front before caution flew.
All was taken to another level earlier this season at Daytona, when drivers realized they could push each other around the entire track. They began by swapping positions to allow the second car to cool its engine (high-speed ballet, anyone?).
They advanced to the point where one spotter often called the race for two drivers, even if one drove for a rival organization.
Then teams realized the pusher simply could cheat the nose of the car outside a few feet and create the same cooling effect with much less of a drop in speed than the swap. Bayne did that for the entire 500 until David Ragan was penalized for jumping lanes on the final restart, leaving the 21 as the pushee for the first time.
In between there were a lot of crashes because drivers were impatient early or made moves off the left rear corners that left the lead car unstable. There also were long periods of spread-out packs of two that became monotonous.
But there's no denying, whether you like tandem racing or not, the finishes have been thrilling and the strategy mind-boggling.
Expect to see drivers, crew chiefs and spotters take what they learned at Daytona to an even higher level at Talladega. Deals already are in the works for organizations of different manufacturers to pair up and work together.
"We had a meeting this week talking about, you know, who you want to try to get on your radio, and it's pretty odd," Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said. "I mean, typically it's teams that try to communicate within the team.
"But for a Childress car to be talking to a Hendrick car, or a Hendrick car to be talking to a Roush car, and a Roush car to be talking to a Gibbs car, we've never seen that."
It's not going to change because there are too many advantages. The goal is to get to the finish with a chance to win regardless of what partner you're paired with.
"I'm a fan of it because, I think, honestly it's safer doing it with one spotter and two cars," Burton said. "However, I'm not a fan of it because it's supposed to be us against them, you know? We are not supposed to be working together.
"It's a pretty interesting time right now."
It'll be an intense time on Sunday if the Daytona 500 was any indication. Remember Edwards' initial comment then?
"My head hurts," he said immediately after the race.
I don't like it. It's not really drafting. It's just pushing each other. And it's dangerous.” -- David Pearson on two-car drafting
The heads of many fans hurt having to watch the two-car hookups for so long, but you can't blame NASCAR. It did everything possible to reduce the length of hookup time, first taking away some of the cooling advantages engineers had concocted and then shrinking the size of the restrictor plate.
You can bet teams have spent the past few months rethinking ways to out-think the governing body with new cooling innovations, in which Ford's new engine seemingly had a decided advantage.
"Our [engines] are just more durable," Bayne said. "We can run them up to 270 and 280 degrees and not worry about breaking an engine. Everybody else had to keep theirs around 240 or they started losing a little power."
NASCAR doesn't plan any more restrictions on the cooling systems, but the governing body already has announced the size of the plate hole will be smaller than that at Daytona to hopefully keep the two-car speeds below 200 mph.
If you buy into Earnhardt's theory at Daytona, the plates should have been made larger, reasoning it would be harder to get locked together at higher and more unstable speeds.
Perhaps Talladega's surface has worn enough since being repaved in 2006 that it will create problems with the tandem racing, but don't count on it.
"It's just kind of how that racing is going to be right now," Kasey Kahne said. "The way the cars are and the way the rules are some of it could be better and some of it could be worse, but it is what it is.
"I kind of liked it, but then at the same time I've always really liked the big packs to where it used to be when we were four-wide and 10 rows deep or seven rows deep."
Count Kahne among the indifferent.
Whatever side you're on, it's not going to change. And in the end, luck is going to play a big role as always, whether it's getting with the right drafting partner or avoiding somebody else's early mistake.
"It's going to be a crapshoot," Kyle Busch said. "You have no idea what's going to happen or how it's going to happen. We just worry about surviving and trying to survive.
"Right now, with the way that we saw the race play out in Daytona, we're expecting the same thing."
Pearson won't like it. Many others won't, either.
But it's here to stay, so you might as well get on board.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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